Jamaica: Land of Mosquitoes, Machetes and MSG, Part 1

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This is kinda graphic. So don’t read if you don’t want to know that much about me!

Recently, a reader asked how she can stay healthy while visiting Jamaica. My family is Jamaican, but due to years of civil war, I never had any interest in returning. Then a few years back, my long lost cousin down there needed some cash to partake in a program which would allow her to come to the US and work for the summer. In exchange, her mom offered to give us a place to stay should we come down for a visit.

Jamaica Land of Mosquitoes, Machetes and MSG, Part 1

Having gone more than 30 years without returning to JA, I decided that the time had come. Especially because I would have been staying with family instead of in a resort, which is really not my style at all.

Anyway, a few days after getting down there, I made my first dietary mistake. We went into town and stopped to get a beef patty. Now, I wasn’t expecting it to be a traditional patty, made with a good suet crust, as the place we bought it is was a chain called “Juicy”. All chain restaurants today use synthetic fats like Crisco and the like. Nonetheless, I was interested in seeing if the flavor in any way resembled what I had grown up with in the Bronx and what I can reproduce in my own kitchen.

Kids With Corn in Jamaica
Kids With Corn

Minutes after eating the patty, I was overcome with an intense thirst. MSG! I kept drinking and drinking, but nothing could satisfy my thirst. By the time I had gotten home, my ankles were swollen like tree stumps and my lymph nodes under my chin began to swell and hurt so much that I could barely turn my head. As the day went on, I noticed that I was barely urinating. This continued for days! Little did I know that several meals I had eaten over the following days contained a packet of soup stock that apparently EVERY Jamaican uses. It’s called Cock Soup and it is loaded with MSG.

About a week after our initial arrival, we left my cousin’s house to visit another part of the island — Portland. This is where the accumulation of MSG got nasty. On the way there (a 5 hour drive from my cousin’s house in Santa Cruz), I developed a cough, finding myself continuously coughing up some of the nastiest phlegm ever. Then that night after arriving at our apartment, I began running a fever, followed by intense diarrhea. It seems my body couldn’t figure out how to get rid of the build up of MSG except to make me sicker than I had ever been in my life (barring when I had an intestinal blockage in my 20s).

Stew Peas
Stew Peas

As a result of this episode, I spent the next 2 days confined to my bed unable to do anything but sleep. The first day, I ate a little of the food that the Rastaman-caretaker prepared for me (and it was damn good!), but was afraid to eat anything that I didn’t prepare myself. So I ended up eating mostly fruit and drinking coconut water, which only made me severely hypoglycemic in the absence of any savory foods. It wasn’t until I headed to Kingston where we stayed in the Kingston Retreat that had a stove that I was finally able to make myself some chicken soup and other nourishing dishes with my own sea salt that I had brought with me from the U.S. Even so, it took me 4 weeks after my return to the U.S. before I actually felt well again.

Looking back, I guess I could have talked more extensively with some Rasta dudes to find out what exactly they used in their cooking. They’re food is supposed to be ital, which basically means that it is supposed to be pure, using only naturally derived ingredients. Even though, it’s mainly a vegetarian diet with the exception of some fish, they are supposed to use things like coconut oil, which other Jamaicans have all but forgotten.

In Jamaica, everybody believes that their food is natural, even those who are using Cock Soup and rancid vegetable oils in all of their recipes. And as much as I hate to say it, the island mentality doesn’t exactly lend itself to getting real answers to questions like “What do you use in that?” I was too exhausted to really get into any conversation that was unlikely to get me any real answers.

So how do you stay healthy on a Jamaican vacation?

1. Bring a packet of sea salt — especially if you are MSG sensitive like me. You will probably need to cook most of your food.

2. Seek out Rastas, if you’re eating out. Talk to them about what EXACTLY they are cooking with. Just hope they’re not too high to understand what you’re saying.

3. Go to outdoor markets to buy food you plan to cook. Big supermarkets and butcher shops should be good for animal based foods. But most chickens are fed “feed”, so just be aware. At least they do get to run about.

4. Don’t eat the patties. Interestingly enough, I have lots of recipes for patties in cookbooks that have been printed outside of Jamaica and not one of them contains MSG. ALL of the cookbooks in Jamaica tell you to add MSG or a Chinese version of it called ve-ting (or something like that).

5. Foods like rice and peas or jerk pork/chicken should be devoid of MSG and should be OK. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a jerk recipe in Jamaica that had MSG in it.

6. You probably want to avoid Chinese restaurants.

7. Upscale places may be OK and the people who work there are used to dealing with tourists, so you may get a straightforward answer to questions about what’s in the meal.

I’ll be back to talk about the other two M’s of Jamaica soon.

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